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Why don’t we want teenagers to drink?

The reason the NHMRC recommends that “for children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option” is because the medical and research evidence suggests that early initiation of alcohol consumption may adversely effect brain development and lead to physical and mental health problems in adulthood.

More immediately, alcohol consumption by children and teenagers is associated with increased risk of accidents, injuries, violence, self-harm, risky sexual behaviour, and even death by alcohol overdose (just spend a weekend in an emergency department).

Are our teenagers drinking?

Contrary to what we read in the media, and to the perceptions held by many Australians, the majority of our teenagers are not drinking.

The statistic we most commonly see quoted in the media is the number of teenagers who have ever used alcohol, and these numbers are very high.  However, these numbers are responses to the question “Have you ever had even part of an alcoholic drink” and include those who have ever had even a sip or taste of alcohol.

A better measure of underage drinking is the number of teenagers who have consumed alcohol recently.  The 2011 ASSAD survey found that 95% of 12-year-olds, 88% of 14-year-olds and 71% of 16-year-olds are not current drinkers (that is, they did not drink alcohol in the week preceding the survey).

Data from the ASSAD surveys – which have been conducted every three years since 1984 – clearly show that the proportion of teenagers who drank in the week preceding the survey has declined over time; from 50% of 16-17-year-olds in 1984 to 33% in 2011. There have also been similar declines in the proportion of teenagers who have had a drink in the last month, last year and ever.

Why are (teenagers’) social norms important?

Research across multiple settings suggests young people’s perceptions of social norms have an immediate and lasting effect on their behaviours.  An adolescent’s perception of what is ‘normative’ (what they think others do and what they think others expect them to do) has an even stronger influence on their behaviour than peer pressure.

There is evidence from numerous studies conducted around the world that adolescents’ perceptions of what is normative are often inaccurate – that is, they think that their peers drink alcohol at an earlier age, drink it more often, and drink more of it than they actually do.

There is also evidence that if we can correct these misperceptions, we can reduce the pressure young people feel to drink.  This means that teenagers will: start drinking later, drink less often, and drink smaller amounts of alcohol.

The power of social norms

We surveyed 512 NSW teenagers who were attending Schoolies on the Gold Coast.  The biggest predictor of drinking at Schoolies, and of usual drinking, was their belief about how much and how often friends of the same sex drank alcohol.

These teens dramatically over-estimated the descriptive norm (what others their age do): they thought that more than half of their friends drank at least one to two days per week, and that nine out of ten drank more than five standard drinks on a typical occasion. Based on national data on teen drinking, we know that these perceptions are wrong.

Why are (parents’) social norms important?

The 2011 ASSAD survey reported that 33% of students obtained their last alcohol drink from their parents. Does this mean parents don’t care if their children drink?

I spend a lot of time talking to parents and what I find is that many provide their children with alcohol because that is what ‘everyone does’, and that it is perceived to be the normal thing to send your teenager to a party with a 4-pack of booze.

However, many of these parents say they would rather not provide alcohol, and that they worry about their children attending parties where alcohol flows freely under the ‘supervision’ of other adults.

Many parents also believe that providing their children with small amounts of alcohol is an effective harm-minimisation strategy, and that by doing so they are teaching them how to drink responsibly.

There is increasing evidence that this does not work – in the context of Australia’s heavy-drinking culture; the earlier teens are introduced to alcohol, the more they drink (as a teen and later as an adult).

This confusion results in mixed messages being delivered to teenagers – with parents wanting to keep their children safe but also wanting them to ‘fit in’ and wanting to be seen as a ‘reasonable’ parent. The teenagers we have spoken to in our focus groups and interviews generally believe that their parents think it is ok for them to drink – even when those same parents believe that they have communicated to their children that it isn’t.

Remember those teens we surveyed at Schoolies?  They also perceived that others approved of their drinking.  Only 27.4% thought that their parents care or care a great deal about people their age drinking; and only 7% believed that their parents might be upset or angry if they found out they were “getting drunk at Schoolies”

What can we do about it?

Our country’s young people are experiencing unprecedented harms from their consumption of alcohol, as evidenced by the shocking rates of alcohol-related hospitalisations.  If we want to reduce this alcohol-related carnage, we need to provide our young people with an environment in which not drinking is not only possible but also encouraged.

We need to communicate, and celebrate, the fact that the majority of teens are NOT drinking.

More and more Australian teenagers are choosing not to drink. We can support them in making this choice by talking to them about not drinking and making sure that they know that the majority of teenagers don’t drink.

We need to encourage and support parents who want to say no to providing alcohol to their teens; and we need to develop strong communities that support each other in ensuring teens stay alcohol free as long as possible.

Our team is currently working with the community in the Kiama LGA to develop and deliver just such an intervention – teenagers, parents, schools, council, police, health services, media, community groups and individuals working together to build a community where it is ok for teenagers not to drink.

We hope that other communities will join us.

This month the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education is the Official On-Screen Partner for the One Direction ‘Take Me Home’ Australian Tour: 5th, 6th, 16th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th, 29th & 30th October 2013.

To celebrate, FARE is asking people to tell the story of the best alcohol-free night of their lives.

Sandra Jones

Sandra Jones

Professor Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and the Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. From 2001 to 2014 she was the Founding Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on the relationship between media and health, including the impacts of advertising in the print and electronic media on health behaviour, and the use of social marketing to improve population health. She also conducts research in the area of advertising and marketing regulation, particularly in relation to alcohol marketing. Sandra has published more than 150 refereed papers and been awarded in excess of $8 million in research funding. Sandra is also a member of numerous alcohol-related policy and advocacy bodies, and a Director of Amaze (Autism Victoria).

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